BY LINDA BAKER
Elena Medo commercializes breast milk.
BY LINDA BAKER | PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN
Lake Oswego entrepreneur Elena Medo is yanking an age-old practice — wet-nursing — into the 21st century.
The founder and CEO of Medolac Laboratories, Medo this past year opened a 5,000-square-foot headquarters and processing facility, where her 18 employees convert “raw” breast milk into a shelf stable product that can be sold to hospitals and humanitarian aid organizations. Medolac sources the milk from the Mother’s Milk Cooperative, a first-of-its-kind organization Medo established on Mother’s Day 2013 that pays mothers for their milk.
It’s a decidedly postmodern endeavor: applying industrial-scale food-processing technology and social venture/sharing economy principles to enable mass production of human breast milk.
“It’s the producer-processor model,” explains Medo, who is at once pragmatic and passionate about the Medolac setup and its benefits. “Think tomatoes, think dairy,” she explains. “The producers are the people who provide the raw material — in this case, moms. The processor is Medolac. Medolac processes it, but the milk belongs to the co-op.”
In 2014 everyone knows breast milk is best. Getting new moms to switch from infant formula to nursing ranks as one of the public health movement’s big success stories. Over 70% of American women now breast-feed their infants for some amount of time; 44% nurse for six months.
Medolac is entering the scene as a new phase of the breast-feeding campaign unfolds. More and more hospitals are adopting breast milk as a standard of care in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). For premature babies, human milk provides a protein necessary for healthy development; it can also prevent necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal illness that is a leading killer of premature infants. If the mother of a preemie is unable to produce milk, many hospitals now use donor milk when available.
A network of nonprofit milk banks with volunteer donors serves that market. But those milk banks supply less than 5% of very low-birthweight babies’ requirements, asserts Medo, whose credentials include an M.B.A. with a health focus. Paying moms will help scale production to meet demand, she says. Plus, unlike nonprofit donor milk, which must be kept frozen, Medolac’s product can be stored at room temperature — for up to three years. It’s a model Medo says will dramatically increase access to breast milk in the U.S. and around the world.
“We anticipate serving the entire domestic market and extending into the global market in five years,” she says. “There is no acceptable reason for babies to die for lack of donor milk. But that’s what’s happening.”
Medo, 60, has been in the for-profit breast-milk game since 1999, when she started Prolacta Bioscience, a San Diego company that developed a human milk fortifier for use in NICUs. She left in 2008, as a new executive team was thinking about selling the company. “It wasn’t the environment that really fostered innovation. And I really wanted to innovate.”
Armed with a federal-discovery grant and seed capital, Medo launched Medolac in 2009. She also received a USDA grant to explore the feasibility of a milk co-op. Four years later, Medo, along with her husband and Medolac COO Joseph Medo, relocated to Oregon. (Her daughter, Adrianne Weir, oversees the milk cooperative). “The rent, the cost of employees are all dramatically lower here than in California,” Medo says. The Oregon lifestyle was also appealing: “very family friendly, wholesome, lots of water.”